"I speak tonight for the dignity of man and the destiny of democracy," the President Lyndon Johnson began.
It was March 15, 1965, a week after the nation saw on television Alabama state troopers violently attack peaceful black marchers protesting voting rights discrimination. The bloody images shocked the nation. They also horrified Johnson, the former Senate majority leader who had been lukewarm on civil rights at best.
The violence sparked Johnson into addressing Congress about the immediate need for a new Voting Rights bill. It would later be called the best speech of his presidency and one that brought Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to tears.
It was also the first speech to Congress in U.S. history that mentioned Latinos and their struggle against poverty and discrimination—something Johnson saw firsthand as a young teacher in a Mexican American school. And it also brought a number Mexican-American civil rights leaders to tears.
But those historic words are often overlooked.
Johnson’s long conversion began when his father, a former state lawmaker, was hit hard financial times and his family was forced into near poverty in Johnson City, Texas. To help the family, Johnson worked in the cotton fields along side African Americans and Mexican Americans.
When it was time for Johnson to attend college, the University of Texas just wasn’t an option. It was too expensive. So, Johnson enrolled at Southwest Texas State Teachers College in San Marcos, Texas (today called Texas State). But Johnson still struggled with the tuition.
After his freshman year, a 19-year-old Johnson took a teaching job in Cotulla, a small South Texas town where the majority of students were poor and Mexican American.
But the young, idealistic Johnson was appalled by what he saw among his 5th, 6th, and 7th graders at the Welhausen School. Not only were his students dirt poor, he quickly saw how the town’s whites treated them like second-class citizens. Whites encourage the Latino students to stay home and become laborers like their parents. Other whites educators complained that the students did nothing but carry dirt, lice and disease.
"I am not going to stand here and tell you that they are the best people on the face of the earth," one congressman said of Mexican Americans at the time Johnson was in Cotulla.
They treated Mexicans “just worse than you’d treat a dog,” Johnson would say later in life. Her remembered “the Mexican children going through a garbage pile, shaking the coffee ground from the grapefruit rinds and sucking the rinds for the juice that was left.”
But an energetic Johnson decided that he could still convert his students into believers of the American Dream. He organized athletic teams, pushed literary clubs and repeatedly told them all they could all reach high school, a rarity for Mexican Americans at the time.
When he got his first paycheck, he didn’t spend it on himself. He bought playground equipment.
Johnson told one student, Felipe Gonzalez, that one day he would be an attorney. Meanwhile, he tutored English to the school janitor.
"He used to tell us that this country was so free that anyone could become President who was willing to work hard enough," his former student Dan Garcia recalled.
But deep down, Johnson knew his students had a difficult road ahead. In nearby towns, the Ku Klux Klan ruled by terror. In addition, segregation prevented Mexican Americans from good schools, college and everyday life.
Johnson later become a congressional aid, a congressman himself and later a U.S. senator. On his road to become the country’s most powerful Senate majority leader in its history, however, Johnson sought to appease Southern segregationists with speeches and his actions. He quietly helped a family of Mexican American soldier Felix Longoria, who was killed in action in WWII but refused burial service by a white-owner funeral home, get a spot in Arlington National Cemetery. But he also bowed to segregationists’ pressure and pushed the passage of a weak civil rights bill in 1957, which liberal senator said was “like a soup made from the shadow of a crow which had starved to death.”
He would remain ambivalent to civil rights until he became president after the assassination of President Kennedy. He would push’s Kennedy’s Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed major forms of discrimination minorities and women.
Then came Selma.
Watching the violence play out on television unleashed within Johnson a deep moral obligation to help that had been planted as a teacher. The images on television brought him back to his memories of Cotulla, and his desire for a better and more just world. And now he was prepared to do something about it.
It is often said that absolute power corrupts absolutely. But “power doesn’t always corrupt. Power can cleanse,” said Robert Caro, author of a multi-volume biography on Johnson.
With strong Democratic and liberal Republican majorities in the House and Senate, Johnson urged Congress to pass a new Voting Rights act, then outlined his vision to battle discrimination and poverty.
"This great, rich, restless country can offer opportunity and education and hope to all: black and white, North and South, sharecropper and city dweller," Johnson told Congress. "These are the enemies: poverty, ignorance, disease. They are the enemies and not our fellow man, not our neighbor. And these enemies too, poverty, disease and ignorance," he said, then said slowly enunciating each word of the Civil Right’s movement, "We shall overcome."
When Johnson said those words, an aide to King said it was the only time he saw the civil rights leader cry.
But later on in the speech, Johnson finally told the nation where his desire the help originated. And he made history by finally acknowledging a population that also was involved in the civil rights struggle, but not getting the same attention.
“My first job after college was as a teacher in Cotulla, Texas, in a small Mexican-American school. Few of them could speak English, and I couldn’t speak much Spanish,” he started. “My students were poor and they often came to class without breakfast, hungry. They knew even in their youth the pain of prejudice. They never seemed to know why people disliked them. But they knew it was so, because I saw it in their eyes.”
He paused, then looked up at congressmen.
"I often walked home late in the afternoon, after the classes were finished, wishing there was more that I could do. But all I knew was to teach them the little that I knew, hoping that it might help them against the hardships that lay ahead.
"Somehow you never forget what poverty and hatred can do when you see its scars on the hopeful face of a young child.
"I never thought then, in 1928, that I would be standing here in 1965. It never even occurred to me in my fondest dreams that I might have the chance to help the sons and daughters of those students and to help people like them all over this country."
He paused again. Then, he smiled.
"But now I do have that chance—and I’ll let you in on a secret—I mean to use it."
Congress gave him a standing ovation.
Johnson would sign the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law in August. He would also in November sign the Higher Education Act of 1965, a bill he said would help the children and grandchildren of his former Cotulla students go to college.
As President Obama prepares next week to address Congress and to urge lawmakers to pass comprehensive immigration reform, it’s important to remember that whatever he says, it was Johnson who spoke from the soul, even when he knew it would hurt him politically later. But for Johnson it didn’t matter in 1965. That’s because 1928 and those students were with him, and always would be.